Adapted from article by Chris Kresser 16 April 2021
We seem to be told on a regular basis that eating red meat is bad for our health. Recent studies have clarified this stance somewhat.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined both fresh and processed meat intake from almost 135,000 participants from 21 different countries.
They found no association with fresh red meat intake and the risk of early death, heart disease, cancer and stroke but did find a small association between processed meat consumption and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and death. A strength of the study is that they carefully matched the groups that ate more or less meat with each other so that they were similar in sex, age, body mass index, smoking and drinking.
Another study was a meta-analysis of 59 systematic reviews published in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism which examined the association of dietary fat intake and a variety of health outcomes.
They found no association with total fat, monounsaturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and saturated fatty acids with risks of chronic diseases.
Since we don’t eat food in isolation, there could be important differences depending on whether you eat red meat in a dietary background of highly processed and refined foods or with a whole foods diet.
The contextual importance of meat as part of an overall dietary pattern is important and here are some information to explain this.
Some amines in meat have been shown to increase cancer risk but eating cruciferous vegetables and spices, and cooking meat at lower temperatures such as stewing or low temperature roasting, lowers amines too.
The increased absorption of iron from meat from the gut has also been flagged as a possible reason for excess cancer risk, but eating fruits and vegetables reduces iron absorption in the gut.
Eating vegetables with meat seems to have a protective effect against cancer. Thus eating a nutrient dense, whole foods diet with a broad variety of both animal and plant food is probably the best diet for the majority of the population. If you do choose to eat a lot of red meat or processed meat, keep cooking temperatures low if you can, and enjoy vegetables as part of your meal.
There is no single optimal diet for every individual. Whether you look through the lens of evolutionary biology or biochemistry the conclusion is that the natural human diet contains both animal and plant foods.
The term nutrient density refers to the concentration of micronutrients and amino acids in any given food. Although there tends to be a high intake of calories in the standard western diet, this population tends to lack vitamin A, B6, B12, C, D, folate and iron. Deficiencies of any of these essential nutrients can contribute to the development of chronic disease and shorten lifespan. Animal foods tend to be higher in B12, iron, zinc, EPA and DHA and plant foods tend to be higher in flavinoids, carotenoids, diallyl sulphides, lignans and fibre. Therefore it makes sense to eat a range of both.
Vegetarian and especially vegan diets are lower in several essential nutrients including A, B12, D, calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, choline, selenium, creatine, taurine, methionine, glycine, EPA and DHA. For instance 92 % of vegans and 77% of vegetarians were deficient in B12 compared to 11% of omnivores in a recent study.
Omnivores and vegetarians have the same lifespan as each other and both outlive people on a standard western diet.
Both vegetarian and vegan diets are safe in pregnancy but young children are at risk of short and long term effects if their diet is too restricted.
There is no association between eating foods that are high in cholesterol and the development of heart disease. Low carb diets, that tend to be high in saturated fat, are beneficial for certain cardiovascular disease markers including body weight, triglycerides, fasting glucose, blood pressure, body mass index, abdominal circumference, plasma insulin, HDL and C-reactive protein. Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.
Red meat has been associated with an increase in heart disease and cancer in several studies but correlation does not mean causation. Studies show that people who eat more red meat tend to have a higher BMI, are more likely to be overweight or obese, smoke cigarettes, be physically inactive, less likely to eat fresh fruit and vegetables and and less likely to have higher than a high school education. All of these variables are associated with a higher risk of heart disease and cancer, so it becomes difficult to isolate red meat as the cause. Red meat, particularly grass fed, is rich in B12, zinc, iron, CLA, EPA and DHA that are commonly deficient in the population.
There have been ten meta-analyses of low carb diets. All ten showed that low carb diets were as effective or more effective than low fat diets for weight loss. Some individuals of course may do better on a moderate carb or even high carb approach.
For type 2 diabetics, low carb diets are more effective than high carb diets for weight loss and also improve cardiovascular markers. Low carb and ketogenic diets are more effective than hypo-caloric or low fat diets for improving glycaemic control in type 2 diabetes.
Meanwhile politics, religion and poor science used in nutritional epidemiology have resulted in a lag in change from many institutions who give advice on diet such as the American Dietetics Association, American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association.
In studies the Paleo diet has compared well against the Mediterranean and low fat diets.
Studies have found that ketogenic diets improves cardiovascular risk factors and have been shown have a beneficial effect in Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and epilepsy, and also traumatic brain injury.
The carnivore diet is an “all meat diet” is gaining traction. Although this may improve chronic health problems in the short term, the long term effects are not known. Further research is required.
In general, on urine testing, animal foods are acid forming and plant foods are alkaline forming. However the blood pH is tightly controlled regardless of what you eat.
The low fat, vegan and Paleo diet advocates all don’t eat full fat dairy for various reasons. Dairy is the only food group that has more saturated than unsaturated fat. Meat, including red meat, pork and eggs all contain more unsaturated than saturated fat. Studies show that people who consume more full fat dairy products have either the same or a lower risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
There is a degree of controversy over the environmental cost of meat eating. There are certainly harms from intensive meat rearing. On the other hand properly managed live stock can regenerate grassland ecosystems and reduce carbon emissions.
It is fully understandable that people who love animals and don’t want to see them mistreated embrace veganism and vegetarianism. Better animal husbandry and methods of transport and slaughter need to be more widespread.
How do you love animals, hate waste and environmental damage, and yet eat meat, fish, dairy and eggs at the same time?
I ask myself this a lot. I was a vegetarian for years because I called myself an animal lover and meat-consumption didn’t seem to fit. As a long-term lover of vegetables and pulses, I found the food delicious—certainly the stuff I made for myself in the house. I suffered my way through plenty of bad pasta dishes in restaurants staffed by unimaginative chefs.
In 2010, I embraced low-carb living. At first, I only added fish to my diet. You can do a low-carb version of vegetarianism, but it’s limited. Fish added variety and health benefits even if my ethical self shuddered at the thought of being one of ‘those’ vegetarians.
I started eating meat in 2013. The stance didn’t feel as big as a jump as going from vegetarian to eating fish, so it wasn’t such a dramatic shake-up of my internal moral compass. And blimey, bacon… it’s a cliché that many a former vegetarian stumbled at the bacon hurdle and it’s well founded.
The reason for all this pondering is a book I’ve just bought—The Ethical Carnivore: My Year of Killing to Eat by Louise Gray. The premise is that the Daily Telegraph’s onetime environmental journalist decided she would only eat meat she’d killed herself, and the book begins with her first experience of shooting a rabbit.
I’m 75 percent certain I couldn’t kill an animal deliberately. I’m of the generation that’s become completely detached from the animals we put in our mouths. My father shot rabbits and gutted and skinned them, and he could do the same with birds. I have a razor-sharp memory of him standing at the back door, one back foot of a dead rabbit in each hand, and ripping it apart to allow the cats to dig in
Chickens coming to life
Meat’s almost always appeared in front of me packaged, its origins neatly obscured. Handling chickens makes me flinch as I visualise a head sprouting from that gaping cavity or feathers poking through the skin.
Veganism’s argument for greater health benefits doesn’t convince me. An omnivorous diet of unprocessed foods and plenty of fruit and vegetables will provide the same health gains. But I’m still left with the conundrum—how to eat meat that minimises animal suffering and doesn’t cost the planet dearly?
The ethics thing trips me up all the time. Buy free-range eggs—yes, but they clip the birds’ breaks and kill the male chicks at birth in a horrible way, anyway. Buy Red Tractor meat—not according to this article about what it means for animal welfare standards. Eat meat from the Farmers Market—but it’s so expensive. Eat organic dairy—what about the forced separation of cows from calves and what the industry does to male calves?
I’ve only started the book and I’m hoping it will end with a neat set of guidelines. Follow these and you too can be an ethical carnivore kind of thing. I doubt reading The Ethical Carnivore will turn me into a hunter, but if I emerge with a better understanding of what I can do, I’ll be delighted.
How do you deal with the ethics of eating meat? Any tips or advice gratefully received…
Ethics picture – Madhamathi SV and licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International Licence.